The Heart of God and the Heart of Man

The heart of God too is a space of impulses and desires, and God too conducts a dialogue with it.

When Noah and his sons leave the ark and bring sacrifices to God, it is written: “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor, and God said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth ...” ‏(Genesis 8:21‏). The Torah describes in detail how God changes his mind. God smells the sacrifices, then an internal change takes place and God verbalizes it. God’s words are not addressed to man, but rather “in his heart.”

This common expression − a metaphor that expresses an internal monologue between God and himself − is the subject of a fascinating commentary by the sages: “And God said in his heart: The wicked are possessed by their hearts: ‘The fool hath said in his heart’ ‏(Psalms 14: 1‏); ‘And Esau said in his heart’ ‏(Genesis 27:41‏); ‘And Jeroboam said in his heart’ ‏(1 Kings 12: 26‏); ‘Now Haman said in his heart’ ‏(Esther 6:6‏). But the righteous are in possession of their hearts: ‘Now Hannah, she spoke on her heart’ ‏(1 Samuel 1: 13‏); ‘And David said to his heart’ ‏(1 Samuel 27: 1‏), ‘But Daniel purposed on his heart’ ‏(Daniel 1: 8‏), ‘And God said to his heart ...’” ‏(Genesis Rabba 34, 10‏).

The Midrash juxtaposes two lists of quotations, and what they all have in common is the linguistic use of “heart” to express an internal discourse between a person and him- or herself. The first four quotes describe a discourse among wicked people, and the latter four, of righteous people. The Midrash distinguishes between the linguistic use of “heart” in the first list as opposed to the second one: In the first list the Hebrew expression belibo ‏(“in his heart”‏) is used to describe the exchange that takes place, metaphorically, when a person is a hostage within his own heart.

For the righteous, on the other hand, there is a dialogue between the person and his heart: Hannah talks al liba ‏(literally, “on her heart”‏), David said el libo ‏(“to his heart”‏), and Daniel resolves al libo ‏(“on his heart”‏). The person is external to his heart, conducts a dialogue with it and therefore is not submissive to it.

The heart represents an internal space of passion and desire, and the person who operates from within that area, when he is limited by its boundaries, is called “wicked.” But in the righteous, the heart, a space of impulses, does not delineate their boundaries but constitutes a type of space that counters the self − a space with which the self conducts a dialogue, but to which it is not subordinate.

The last item on the list of the “righteous” breaks the paradigm that has been constructed, and can perhaps be seen as a kind of punch line. When God smells the pleasant aroma, he “says to his heart,” in the original Hebrew. Even for God, the same dynamic of discourse between internal spaces is in evidence; for him too, the heart is responsible for the impulse, whereas he himself conducts a dialogue with his heart.

The focus on speaking to the heart provides a new explanation for the content of God’s words. God informs his heart that from now on he will not curse the ground because of man, because “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” God thus tells his heart about man’s heart. The difference between the wicked and the righteous is not the nature of their hearts − the heart of the wicked man is the same as that of the righteous man. The difference lies in the control they have over the heart.

The innovative nature of the Midrash is revealed in the last item on the list: God’s heart also behaves like that of man. It too is a space of impulses and desires, and God too conducts a dialogue with it. The wicked man, the righteous man, man and God − all have the same heart. The difference between “good” and “evil” is not a generic difference, nor a difference between man and God, but rather a difference in the degree of self-control. Through his words God introduces the two hearts to one another.

Be aware, says God to his heart, “that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” just like you. At first it seemed that God regrets that he wanted to destroy the world because of the evil nature of man’s heart. But the Midrash reveals that the entire discussion of the evil impulse of the heart is also a discussion by God about the nature of his own heart. God understands that there is no possibility of changing his own heart either, therefore he stands outside his heart, as it were, and tells it about his new insight.

Just as God accepts the fact that man has an evil heart, God accepts the fact that he − God himself − also has one. Just as he himself stands outside his heart and speaks to it, God also expects man to stand outside his heart and speak to it. But God goes one step further: He also tells his heart about man’s heart. Only when his own heart knows about man’s heart, only when the hearts know that they are the same, will the covenant between them be created.